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Adventist Philosophers—Swimming in the Deep End

How, if at all, does God-talk matter?

For the seventh time, the Society of Adventist Philosophers gathered today in a hotel conference room for what leader Zane Yi, of Loma Linda University, called “conversation and friendship.”  A single question animated interactions among the 25 or so who were attending the Society’s annual meeting: How do human words relate to the Word, the divine self-communication that has given rise to the (biblical) people of God?  The meeting formal theme was “Words and the Word: Adventism and the Linguistic Turn.”

Papers and discussion began with reflection on the connection between God and the language of the Bible.   It ended with consideration of whether, in a secularizing world, speech about God has any usefulness at all, any importance worth contending for?  Today in Atlanta, commonplace Adventist self-preoccupation, normally evident at gatherings of church scholars, gave way to focus on issues that fascinate and disturb all people of faith.

Iriann Hausted, who is studying at Andrews University, began the morning with an exploration of divine involvement in the development of scripture.  One school of thought, Calvinist in leaning, imagines biblical authors having a certain freedom even as God “controls” what is said to assure that biblical speech expresses the divine intention “exactly.”  Another, represented by Fernando Canali of Andrews University, leans “Arminian,” that is, toward more emphasis on the freedom of the biblical writers and thinks of God as offering supervision and, as necessary, remedial correction.  Both fall short, Hausted remarked, of full consistency, and she ended by saying that questions remain.  One audience responder offered the idea of the biblical writers as “authoritative witness” to God as possibly helpful clarification.

Jasper St. Bernard, a student at University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, introduced participants to the ordinary language analysis of John Austin, the British philosopher who pioneered what has come to be known as “speech act” theory.  When human speak, they intend not just to utter words, but also to accomplish something.  The intended accomplishment is the “illocutionary force” of speech, and St. Bernard said that God’s speech, not least through the Incarnation, is meant to clarify God’s intentions for how humans live.  

Moises Estrada, a graduate of the seminary now beginning pastoral work in California, presented a summary of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s perspective on the purpose of philosophy and the limits of human language.  Philosophy (when it is good philosophy) destroy idols, or the self-assured answers human beings are prone to offer.  Anyone who speaks speaks from within a form of life or a “language game.”  Thus it is irresponsible for anyone to ridicule people who come from a different place.  It is certainly irresponsible, for example, to ridicule religious belief.  And all this means that humans must learn to live with “plurality”: differences cannot by resolved (by humans) into a single true perspective.  Reaction from the audience zeroed in on the question of whether constructive conversation can even across lines of convictional difference.  Estrada emphasized the first obligation conversation partners have is to “look and see.”  More effort should go into understanding what others are about.


Attendees at the Society of Adventist Philosophers 2015 meeting.

Cosmin Ritivoiu, who attends Fuller Theological Seminary, opened a window onto Derrida, the French deconstructionist, using the Isaiah 6 as an illustrative biblical text.  Derrida is suspicious of all human claims to knowing, not least claims to knowledge of what is good and evil.  No human understanding of justice, for example, can be final, and each turns easily into a rationale for “hierarchy” that puts others at disadvantage to ourselves.  Here conversation after the presentation focused on how Derrida’s perspective allows for actual rebuking of injustice.  Comments underscored his own passion for justice and allowed that in emphasizing the danger of arrogance Derrida was not always self-consistent.

Kenneth Bergland, again a student from Andrews, began the afternoon by invoking Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard, as well as contemporary biblical scholars, in order to facilitate understanding the scripture.  Does the Bible describe the “real” world or is it just an expression of human ideals?  Bergland argued that although the answer is elusive, what most matters is response through “practices of living.”  To be convinced of the “divinity of scripture,” the reader must realize that “knowing and doing cannot be separated.” 

Keisha McKenzie, a consultant and scholar of rhetoric from Maryland, argued that the “digital” revolution creates challenges for Adventists who have from the beginning been steeped in the centrality of linear thought expressed in sentences and paragraphs.  Now word-focus has “limited resonance” with the rest of contemporary society, she said.  Even if the Internet, with its visual richness, has not been as “democratizing” as was hoped, it is still a dominant means of communication.  It has “decentralized” information, cut down the importance of “middlemen,” and shifted attention toward visual communication.  It is thus “game-changing” for everything from the study of scripture to the techniques of evangelism, and a church that resists this truth will be unable, she suggested, to sustain itself over the long run.  Discussion included worry that “humiliation” of the word, as one respondent said, could have deeply negative consequences.

Richard Rice offered the keynote address, beginning at mid-afternoon.  He told the story of the God-Is-Dead movement of the 1960s, and described how one “secular” theologian, Paul Van Buren, offered a non-theistic expression of the Christian Gospel.  Now Christian religious belief must be regarded, not as response to God, but simply as an “historical perspective” on the importance of Jesus.  Rice described two theological challenges to Van Buren’s perspective, both of them claiming that widely shared human experience of “ultimacy,” or of “existential trust,” implies the backing of divine reality.   Against the worry, expressed in conversation afterward, that today secularity is tending to doubt that life has any true significance at all, he allowed the point.  Then he said that in such cases the shortest route to belief in God is believing in humanity: unless a person thinks human life is utterly valueless, that person must consider, at least, the idea that God provide the necessary backing for this conviction.

Photos courtesy of Zane Yi.

Charles Scriven is Board Chair of Adventist Forum, the publisher of Spectrum Magazine.

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